- Working memory performs many tasks during writing, but its capacity is limited.
- Writers can improve the functioning of working memory by increasing their verbal ability (knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, and inventory of sentence structures).
- Writers can also improve working memory function by doing activities that increase their ability to focus their attention.
In the spring of 2004, retired professor and psychologist John Pilley adopted a border collie puppy he named Chaser. Pilley loved dogs and needed one after the loss of several family pets, but he was also interested in trying out a theory. Sheep farmers in his area had told him that border collies knew language, that they knew the names of each sheep in the herd they managed and could associate commands with individual sheep.
Intrigued, Pilley began a carefully planned course of instruction for his dog. He was careful to avoid subtle cues that would contaminate scientific findings. He began with nouns, teaching Chaser to fetch toys by name. By the time Chaser was 3, she knew the names of over 1,000 toys and would retrieve a specific toy even if Pilley had concealed it while other toys were visible.
By 2013, Chaser’s language abilities had expanded. She was able to follow the meaning of all the words in simple sentences such as “to Santie Claus take Flipflopper” and “to Flipflopper take Santie Claus.” She could do this with all of her toys. The unavoidable conclusion was that Chaser was using not just long-term memory (remembering which toy was Santie Claus and which was Flipflopper) but also working memory: she retrieved the names of the toys from long-term memory and held them in working memory while she processed the words “to” and “take” and figured out how each part of speech related to the others. Chaser the dog was using working memory. This finding was a sensation in the field of animal research (Pilley 2013a, 2013b). She also exhibits tremendous focus: she eliminates many other contenders for her attention when she retrieves a particular object. (Her favorite is her blue ball, though; that’s what she’s probably staring at in the picture.)
You are able to communicate in writing because you have a working memory. This brain function enables you to process parts of speech and hold new ideas in your mind while you connect them to knowledge stored in long-term memory. You can go a little deeper than Chaser, however. Your working memory enables you to bring new knowledge and stored knowledge together to create new ideas. It also enables you to construct language to describe and explain your new ideas and make plans about how to organize the language you’ll use for that task.
In the grand scheme of brain research, our understanding of working memory is relatively new, and our understanding of it is still evolving. Scientists used to talk about long-term memory and short-term memory. Short-term memory was originally conceived of as the part of the brain that stores a very limited amount of information for a very short time. In 1960, a team of researchers introduced the term “working memory” to take into account all of the tasks that this function performs, but it was several decades before research on working memory flourished (Costandi 2013, Kindle location 1571).
Researchers initially theorized that most people can hold about seven chunks of information in short-term memory concurrently, but further research has theorized that the number is actually only three or four (Baddeley 2017; Cowan 2000). Psychologist Nelson Cowan, who proposed the lower number, explains it this way: “aspects of the memory representation determine what chunks [of information] will be most prominent (relative to the available retrieval context), whereas limits in the focus of attention determine how many of the most prominent chunks in the representation can be attended at once” (Cowan 2000, 176). In other words, working memory decides which chunks of information are important, but limits in our mental focus determine that only three or four chunks of information can be contemplated simultaneously.
Working memory lives in different places in your brain, based on the various functions it performs. Working memory also works in partnership with long-term memory. Thus, even though the capacity of working memory is limited, it taps into a much larger resource when it’s working on producing a complete sentence or generating analysis that combines new knowledge and stored knowledge. If you’d like to learn more about your working memory, one of the scientists who has done field-shaping work on this topic, Alan Baddeley, wrote an excellent overview of the topic in language us muggles can understand on the Serious Science website (Baddeley 2017).
Working Memory and the Writer
Your working memory performs multiple functions for you as you write. It holds the information you need for your writing session in readiness, particularly new information you’ve learned for the project that isn’t in long-term memory yet. In addition, humming along in the background, working memory is planning what you’ll say next when you finish with the sentence you’re writing. It’s also holding your overall plan in mind–your big-picture outline for the project (Kellogg 2008; Kellogg et al. 2013).
Working memory also retrieves information that’s stored in long-term memory that’s relevant for your writing session. This is sometimes referred to as domain knowledge. The absence or presence of domain knowledge is a factor in the difficulty a writer experiences. For example, when college students were asked to write about baseball, the ones who had domain knowledge about baseball found it much easier to draft short essays than those who don’t know much about the sport. The students in the latter group experienced cognitive overload–that is to say, their working memory was working so hard on squeezing out sentences about a topic they didn’t know very much about that there weren’t many resources left for planning how they would organize the essay or which words to choose as they wrote or the grammar of what they were writing (Kellogg 2001b). When you write, multiple cognitive functions compete for the resources working memory provides (Kellogg 2001a; Torrance and Galbraith 2006).
Working memory also focuses on grammar and spelling and word order and word choice–what writing researchers call verbal skill. Here is an area where you can focus on improving specific skills. For example, if you were born after 1965, it’s highly likely that you didn’t get much formal training about English grammar. That’s why it may be difficult for you to write good sentences. You lack basic knowledge about a key verbal skill. And you can fix that (Kellogg and Raulerson 2007).
You may also have a low vocabulary. I can hear you saying “So what? The words I know work just fine for me in my discipline.” Here’s the thing: At some point in almost every text you write, you’re going to come to a point where you need a word that isn’t coming to you easily. Either you’ll just slide a word in there that sounds pretty good to you and is probably wrong or you’ll have to interrupt your writing process to consult a thesaurus. And interruptions are very hard on the working memory. The cost of interruptions is much higher than the time they take. Regaining the focus you need to exclude other stimuli is cognitively costly. In addition, you’re more likely to make errors in written work after an interruption (Foroughi et al. 2014; Foroughi, Malihi, and Boehm-Davis 2016). When your vocabulary is expanded, your working memory can say “Hmm, word needed here. I can think of three. Which one would be best?” And that all would happen so quickly that you wouldn’t even notice it happening, so your writing process wouldn’t be interrupted. The very best way to increase your vocabulary is to read widely in a variety of disciplines and genres. You’ll pick up a lot of vocabulary from context and when you don’t know a word, look it up. Online dictionaries have made the process of increasing vocabulary a lot faster than it used to be. A paid subscription to Webster’s New International Dictionary, Unabridged is a very worthwhile investment for any writer. And numerous dictionary apps can be downloaded to your phone.
The good news for you as an academic writer is that you have domain knowledge about your topic. And your domain knowledge will be increasing over the span of your career. The more domain knowledge you have, the faster your working memory will connect new knowledge with knowledge stored in long-term memory. You’ll get quicker and more proficient at saying “Oh, this idea connects with this chunk of information that I already know.” You won’t need to devote as much of your time to learning new facts because your domain knowledge will continue to expand over the years (Kellogg 1987; Kellogg 2006; Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 2000).
Improving How You Use Working Memory
I’ve discussed only a few of the things working memory does for you as you write. Take a look at this more comprehensive list:
Working Memory Functions During Writing
Storing and Retrieving Data
Storing new knowledge for the writing project that’s not yet in long-term memory
Retrieving relevant information from long-term memory
Thinking about your goals for the writing session
Thinking about the next sentence or paragraph
Thinking about how the sentence you’re writing works with the paragraph
Thinking about grammar
Comprehending new information for your project and putting it in relevant categories
Thinking about how your project engages with the relevant literature in your field
Thinking about what level to write at for your reading audiences
Coordinating multiple simultaneous processes (e.g., writing a sentence and thinking about level of writing for your audience)
Managing Cognitive Resources
Inhibiting response to distractions
Compiled from Kellogg 1987, 2008, 2001a; Olive 2004; Olive, Kellogg, and Piolat, 2008; McCutcheon 1996.
That’s a lot for working memory to do. And remember that working memory is a finite resource. It doesn’t expand to fit the number of tasks you’re doing. Instead, multiple tasks compete for finite resources. So if your working memory needs to devote considerable resources to paying attention to grammar or sentence structure, that leaves much less space for planning and strategy.
The big breakthrough in writing research came in the 1990s, when psychologists Deborah McCutchen and Ronald Kellogg began publishing articles that built on the idea of what McCutchen calls capacity theory–the idea that because working memory is a limited resource, writers can use strategies to decrease the cognitive expense of certain working memory functions. The rest of this essay is about things you can do to use your working memory more efficiently.
Increase Verbal Ability
This is the big kahuna for writers. Most people in the United States today are working with a significant deficit in verbal ability. It’s not their fault. It’s attributable to a major shift in how writing was taught that began in the 1970s. (See “It’s Not You, It’s the System That Educated You.”) The good news is that you can fix this problem. Whether your deficit is a low vocabulary, poor knowledge of grammar, low inventory of sentence structures, low knowledge of typical word order in English, or simply low levels of experience with writing sentences, you can take steps to plug gaps in your verbal skills.
High verbal ability is strongly correlated with higher-quality writing (Kellogg 1994, 2006). When a verbal skill becomes automatic, your working memory can allocate more resources to the higher-order tasks of paying attention to the content of what you’re writing as it pertains to your paragraph, to the next paragraph you’ll write, to how what you’re saying fits with the literature of your field, to how best to present information for your readers, and so forth. Generating sentences can become a process that you hardly even need to think about. (That doesn’t mean that every sentence you write will be a good sentence for your project. It just means that it will be easier for you to try out a variety of ideas and a variety of ways of expressing them.) All it takes is focused practice to increase your verbal ability. (At the end of this essay, you’ll find a list of resources for increasing verbal skills.)
Think of when you were a little cherub in first grade just learning how to write. The effort it took to produce letters, then string letters together to make a word was very high because you were learning the skill of forming the letters of the alphabet. You chewed on the end of your pencil and thought very very hard about how to make a capital “B” or a lowercase “q.” So much of your working memory was devoted to that task that hardly any resources were left to think about including all the words in the sentence you were writing. Writing a whole sentence was a huge big deal in those days because you were working hard to master the skill of transmitting information from your brain to your hand so you could use a pencil to make letters.
The same principle is at work now that you’re doing academic writing. If you didn’t get any formal training in grammar, you’re working with a skill deficit. Writing makes you feel like you want to throw up because you need significant mental resources to do the work of forming grammatically correct sentences and sentences that vary in structure. Not to mention the lack of confidence you feel about your writing skills. Not to mention the very high bar that publishers set for academic writing. You’re expected to perform at a very high level without the training you need and when most of you are at the beginning of a years’-long journey toward writing expertise. All of these are reasons you feel such anxiety and frustration when you sit down to write.
You will be comforted to know that a high proportion of the academic writers in your generation are enduring the same struggles. Everyone is suffering in silence and living in terror that their secret will be discovered. The truth is that generations of writers are struggling harder than they need to because writing education in the United States abandoned formal training in grammar in the mid-1980s.
But! Because your brain is neuroplastic, you can fill in the gaps in your knowledge and put it in long-term memory. You may be thinking “Oh, please! I don’t need this! I’ve gotten along just fine without it so far.” Take a moment and think about what your last writing session was like. How hard you worked and how little you had to show for it when you were done. You do need grammar. Putting grammar in your long-term memory will free up your working memory to do the more difficult thinking writing expertise requires.
Increase Your Ability to Focus Attention
Study after study has shown that people with a higher working memory capacity are also the folks that have a greater ability to focus their attention on a specific topic or task. The two things are highly correlated, particularly when working memory is doing the task of manipulating information, as it does when you write (Engle 2018; Fougnie 2008). So improving your working memory capacity means improving your ability to focus on your work and ignore other stimuli.
There are several ways to do this. One way is to engage in an activity that puts you in a meditative state. This could be actual meditation or it could be something that puts you in that blissful state where you’re lost to the world, where you’re not aware of your surroundings or the passage of time. Entering this state for as little as 20 minutes a day will strengthen the part of your brain allocated to focusing attention. It makes sense: when you enter a meditative state, other stimuli continue to come, but you’re blocking them out and focusing on just one thing.
When you’re writing, you can also learn to eliminate the things that tend to niggle at you as you’re generating text. When I’m editing a text for an author, the first thing I do is get rid of all the distracting things on the pages I’m looking at. I change the font to the one I know best: Times New Roman. I change the margins to 1 inch on left and right. I change paragraph divisions from a double hard return and no indentation to a single hard return and tab indent. If the author is using in-text citations, I change the punctuation style to what the press prefers. Then I survey for any other visual stimuli that might distract me. I often run a spellcheck before I start, for example. Removing all these visual distractions helps me focus on grammar and content. When I don’t do these things first, there’s an extremely annoying voice in my head that won’t shut up: “Look at the inconsistent punctuation in those citations. Hope I don’t forget to fix that. Oh, this author sometimes uses tab indents and sometimes doesn’t. I need to fix that. I really can’t deal with this sans serif font; it’s really annoying me. I’d have a better sense of where I was in this file if the margins were 1 inch because that’s what I’m used to.” That extremely annoying voice is constant and is always pulling at my attention. That’s when I make errors–I miss an incorrect verb tense or a comma splice. Removing visual distractions that activate that voice before I start working goes a long way to improving my ability to focus on editing and nothing else.
Those are my particular issues as a copyeditor. Figure out what the distractors are in your work environment and systematically exclude them. Moving objects are high contenders; put your Derek Jeter bobble-head figure under your desk while you’re working. Wear something to block out sound if you need to. If you need to arrange the objects on your desk just so, do it. No need to apologize; there’s science behind you! And I highly recommend turning off your phone and shutting down your e-mail program. You may think that you deserve a little break from writing work and can check your e-mail without any consequences, but you’re delusional. Don’t ask me how I know that. A friend told me. Yeah, that’s it.
Resources for Improving Your Use of Working Memory
Gazzaley, Adam, and Larry D. Rosen. The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016.
This book by a neuroscientist and a psychologist explains why we struggle to focus our minds on specific tasks and write about how we can improve our attention. Three sections: “Cognition and the Essence of Control,” “Behavior in a High-Tech World,” and “Taking Control.” Written in an easy-to-digest, reader-friendly style.
Jast, Joanna. Laser-Sharp Focus: A No-Fluff Guide to Improved Concentration, Maximised Productivity and Fast-Track to Success. [Auckland]: [Joanna Jast], 2016.
The first sentence in this book informs us that even brief interruptions can decrease productivity by up to 40 percent. (Yikes!) This is much more than a list of things to try; Jast guides you through diagnosing the specific types of focus that give you difficulty and provides a goal-directed system for making improvements with specific tasks. Highly recommended.
Zylowska, Lidia, and Daniel Siegel. 2012. The Mindfulness Prescription for Adult ADHD: An 8-Step Program for Strengthening Attention, Managing Emotions, and Achieving Your Goals. New York: Random House.
Even though this book is marketed to adults with ADHD, it’s an excellent resource for anyone who is looking to increase their ability to focus. The chapters take you through a guided program of gradually increasing the cognitive skills that will lead to stronger focus.
BrainHQ Program. https://www.brainhq.com
In contrast to other brain-training programs, this one was designed in consultation with neuroscientist Michael Merzenich. It’s based on the key neuroscientific principles of repetition, incremental improvement, feedback and suggestions for improvement, and rewards for success. BrainHQ provides a lot of information about the neuroscience behind its design. One of the key areas of focus is attention. It’s a paid program of training, but the cost is quite reasonable.
Increasing Verbal Ability
Casagrande, June. It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2010.
This tiny paperback punches well above its weight. It’s a seminar on sentence writing, including all the things that can go wrong and how to fix them. If you have just ten minutes a day to work on your verbal skills, dip into this one.
Longknife, Ann, and K. D. Sullivan. The Art of Styling Sentences. Hauppage, N.Y.: Barron’s, 2012.
The strength of this slim paperback is its description of twenty basic types of sentence structure. If you need to expand your repertoire of sentence types, this is the book for you.
Provost, Gary. 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing. New York: Signet, 2014.
This book has gone through several editions. Any of them will be good. I got the first edition (1972) free for my Amazon Kindle and found it chock full of useful suggestions. It’s not a systematic overview of grammar or sentence styles, but it’s full of wise knowledge about writing that you can absorb in quick little dips.
Rosen, Leonard J., and Laurence Behrens. The Allyn & Bacon Handbook. 5th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2003.
Get your hands on this from a used bookseller if you can. It’s a gem. It has a detailed index inside the front cover so you can quickly find exactly what you’re looking for. The chapter topics are excellent. This is a superb place to start when you’re looking to increase your verbal ability. Sections include “Understanding Grammar,” “Writing Correct Sentences,” “Writing Effective Sentences,” “Using Effective Words,” and “Using Punctuation.”
Stilman, Ann. Grammatically Correct: The Essential Guide to Spelling, Style, Usage, Grammar, and Punctuation. Revised and updated. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2010.
The strength of this guide are sections 3, “Structure and Syntax,” and 4, “Style.” Stilman covers areas of writing skill that newer academic writers often struggle with and that aren’t often covered in writing manuals. At the end of the book is a useful, albeit brief, section called “Suggestions for Self-Improvement.”
Williams, Joseph M. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 11th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
If you get just one book to help you with writing skills, get this one. It’s gone through many editions and all are good. Written by a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Chicago, this book explains basic principles and provides exercises so you can practice your new skill. Although Williams doesn’t label his topic as such, this book focuses on the metacognitive aspects of writing: asking questions about what you write, solving problems with your sentences and paragraphs, and thinking about the needs of your readers.
Williams, Phil. Word Order in English Sentences. 2nd ed. Brighton: Phil Williams.
This is a topic that style manuals rarely discuss. There’s a secret body of knowledge about order of words in fluent English sentences. Phil Williams shares the decoder ring.
Grammar Revolution: https://www.english-grammar-revolution.com/sentence-structure.html
Site owner Elizabeth O’Brien offers numerous resources that include a PDF titled “The Beginner’s Guide to Grammar,” video grammar lessons, and a guided multimedia course in grammar called The Get Smart Grammar Program. O’Brien’s resources work well for adult learners.
Reynolds, Susan. Fire Up Your Writing Brain: How to Use Proven Neuroscience to Become a More Creative, Productive, and Successful Writer. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2015.
This is a comprehensive guide to caring for and working with your brain through all of the stages of a writing project. Even though it’s a little skimpy with references to the literature Reynolds draws on, I still recommend it highly. It’s full of sound advice from a highly experienced author.
Zinsser, William. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. 7th ed. New York: HarperPerennial, 2016.
Get this book for the first section, “Principles.” Zinsser wrote for newspapers and magazines for many decades and writes very eloquently about the struggles of producing a text in the last section of this timeless classic.
Baddeley, Alan. 2017. “Working Memory.” Serious Science, January 19. http://serious-science.org/working-memory-7982.
Bransford, John D., Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking. 2000. “How Experts Differ from Novices.” Chapter 2 of How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, expanded edition, ed. John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 2000.
Costandi, Moheb. 2013. 50 Ideas You Really Need to Know: The Human Brain. London: Quercus Editions Ltd.
Cowan, Nelson. 2000. “The Magical Number 4 in Short-Term Memory: A Reconsideration of Mental Storage Capacity.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 24: 87–185.
Engle, Randall W. 2018. “Working Memory and Executive Attention: A Revisit.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 13, no. 2: 190–193.
Foroughi, Cyrus K., Parasteh Malihi, and Deborah A. Boehm-Davis. 2016. “Working Memory Capacity and Errors Following Interruptions.” Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition 5: 410–414.
Foroughi, Cyrus K., Nicole E. Werner, Erik T. Nelson, and Deborah A. Boehm-Davis. 2014. “Do Interruptions Affect Quality of Work?” Human Factors 56, no. 7: 1262–1271.
Fougnie, Daryl. 2008. “The Relationship between Attention and Working Memory.” In New Research on Short-Term Memory, ed. Noah B. Johansen, 1–45. New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.
Kellogg, Ronald T. 1987. “Effects of Topic Knowledge on the Allocation of Processing Time and Cognitive Effort to Writing Processes.” Memory & Cognition 15, no. 3: 256–266.
Kellogg, R. T. 2001a. “Competition for Working Memory among Writing Processes.” American Journal of Psychology 114: 175–192.
Kellogg, Ronald T. 2001b. “Long-Term Working Memory in Text Production.” Memory & Cognition 29, no. 1: 43–52.
Kellogg, Ronald T. 1994. The Psychology of Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kellogg, Ronald T. 2006. “Professional Writing Expertise.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, 1st ed., edited by K. Anders Ericsson, Neil Charness, Paul J. Feltovich, and Robert R. Hoffman, 389–402. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Kellogg, Ronald T. 2008. “Training Writing Skills : A Cognitive Developmental Perspective.” Journal of Writing Research 1, no. 1: 1–26.
Kellogg, Ronald T., and Bascom A. Raulerson III. 2007. “Improving the Writing Skills of College Students.” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 14, no. 2: 237–242.
Kellogg, R. T., A. P. Whiteford, C. E. Turner, M. Cahill, and A. Mertens. 2013. “Working Memory in Written Composition: An Evaluation of the 1996 Model.” Journal of Writing Research 5: 159–190.
Kellogg, Ronald T., Alison P. Whiteford, Casey E. Turner, Michael Cahill, and Andrew Mertens. 2013. “Working Memory in Written Composition: An Evaluation of the 1996 Model.” Journal of Writing Research 5, no. 2: 159–190.
McCutchen, Deborah. 1996. “A Capacity Theory of Writing: Working Memory in Composition.” In “The Development of Writing Skill,” special issue, Educational Psychology Review 8, no. 3: 299–325.
Olive, Thierry. 2004. “Working Memory in Writing: Empirical Evidence from the Dual-Task Technique.” European Psychologist 9, no. 1: 32–42.
Olive, Thierry. 2012. “Writing and Working Memory: A Summary of Theories and Findings.” In Writing: A Mosaic of New Perspectives, ed. Elena L Grigorenko, Elisa Mambrino, and David Preiss. New York: Psychology Press.
Olive, Thierry, Ronald T. Kellogg, and Annie Piolat. 2008. “Verbal, Visual, and Spatial Working Memory Demands during Text Composition.” Applied Psycholinguistics 2: 669–687.
Pilley, John W. 2013a. “Border Collie Comprehends Sentences Containing a Prepositional Object, Verb, and Direct Object.” Learning and Motivation 44, no. 4: 229–240.
Pilley, John W., with Hilary Hinzmann. 2013b. Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Torrance, Mark, and David Galbraith. 2006. “The Processing Demands of Writing.” In Handbook of Writing Research, ed. Charles A. MacArthur, Steve Graham, and Jill Fitzgerald, 67–82. New York: Guilford Productions.
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